In July 2013, Canadian League of Legends player Danny “Shiphtur” Le was granted a Visa by the US government to play League of Legends in the country, marking him as an “international athlete.” Soon after, representatives from Riot Games, developer of League of Legends, were quick to champion this as a major step forward. Speaking to Polygon, Riot Games vice president of eSports Dustin Beck said, “It validates eSports as a sport. Now we have the same designation as the NBA or NHL or other professional sports leagues.”
Amidst the flurry of comments about whether or not gaming could be considered a sport, something very crucial has been missed. League of Legends, or any video game for that matter, isn’t a sport in quite the same way as basketball or hockey. To use Beck’s examples, the NBA doesn’t own basketball and the NHL doesn’t own hockey, but without a doubt, Riot Games owns League of Legends.
If the NHL were to go under tomorrow, many fans would be hopelessly depressed, but come February 2014 there would still be hockey at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and every Winter Olympics afterwards until people stopped caring about hockey, much like the way bobsledding and speed skating survive without a billion dollar league to support it. If Riot Games were to suddenly go out of business, could the same be said of League of Legends? Or any other eSport?
Each Olympic sport is governed by an International Sports Federation (IF) on the world level. They’re non-profit groups that set rules and standards for each game, and ensures competitions worldwide are held up to that standard. To be considered as an Olympic Sport, League of Legends would need an IF, but when a game is wholly owned by a company hoping to make a profit, it leaves open the chance to turn an Olympic sport designation into a whole new profit stream.
A League of Legends IF could only exist with Riot Games. As the game’s developers they would be the ones most in-tune with setting the rules, and the ones who would make any fixes to the actual game. They would also have a say in what makes for standard equipment for playing at the Olympic level, which could easily be applied to anyone who wants to play the game at all in competitive play. Special keyboards and mice for the game already exist, but whereas a sponsorship from Logitech might be a benign fact of competitive play, it might seem nastier if you have to pay an extra $199.99 to get a mandatory standard League of Legends controller for “competitive class” play. Or, they could charge you more because, hey, they have complete authority over the standards now, don’t they?
Of course this is all a lot of speculation at the expense of Riot Games, but they’re really just a placeholder for any developer. You can’t have Street Fighter at the Olympics without Capcom, and the same goes for Starcraft and Blizzard and Activision. Even if you would trust Riot Games not to screw over their player-base with price gouging, can you say the same for any other company that has a chance at becoming an Olympic sport?
The Olympics should be about sport, and they can come in many forms. Videogames could be one of those forms, but no one company should own a sport. Many sports do change their rules and standards over time, but none of them rely on a single company to keep them alive, and none are beholden to a single company which might be less concerned with competition, and more with turning a buck.